June 6, 2020

Dear FPCB members and friends:

I have been grateful to receive notes from many of you this week in response to my Pentecost sermon last Sunday, which focused on how the story of Pentecost gives us both an opportunity and a mandate to oppose the systemic racial injustice exemplified in the killing of George Floyd and so many others, and work to overturn it. The gift of the Holy Spirit both calls and empowers us to turn in a new direction, the direction of the kingdom of God, a community defined by the reign of God’s love, justice, mercy and peace in and through Jesus Christ.

Most of the notes I received were expressing gratitude that we, as a congregation, are engaging this crucial issue in our society as an urgent and vital matter of Christian discipleship. A few wanted to ask questions or point out concerns that I did not speak to directly in that sermon. Several of them shared very moving personal stories of having witnessed or experienced systemic racism at work and the impact that has had. Many admitted feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, even fearful, given the complexity of all the interlocking issues and how high emotions are running in our community and nation.

These often acknowledged that they were afraid to say much of anything because of concerns they might "get it wrong," or knew that their understanding was limited but felt helpless on how to begin untangling such an intimidating knot. Many stressed that they felt the need to "do something," but were at a loss for what they could do that would make a tangible difference.

The day after Pentecost, Monday, June 1, the Session discussed these kinds of reactions and began formulating a plan to help us address them. First, it approved appointing a Racial Justice Task Force that will provide intentional guidance on what the church can and should be doing in terms of both education and action, internally and externally, in the near and long term, around the intersection of Christian faith and racial justice.

That Task Force will begin its work shortly, and you will be hearing more about that in the coming weeks, but this will be a sustained attempt to create some answers for the concerns and questions that you have raised in your messages to me. In the meantime, though, we want to offer some immediate ways to begin engaging these crucial questions of faith and life as a congregation.

So, starting next Wednesday, June 10, at 7 p.m., I am going to lead a three-week Zoom class called "Faith in Living Color." It is designed as an "entry-level" course for people who want to start better understanding the realities of race and racism in the United States, and to consider how Christians, especially white Christians, have both a particular responsibility and particular resources to work against racism and for justice. At the end of the third session, we will talk specifically about some ongoing practices you can take up to help you continue to learn and start to take concrete actions.

As I mentioned in the newsletter yesterday, aside from the witness of the gospel itself, our congregation’s mission statement and core values call us to take up this vital work, and take it up now. In fact, those commitments are literally why we exist. The new era of this congregation that began just a little over two years ago began because the people in this congregation had the courage and conviction to stand up for equality and justice for LGBTQ people as a matter of Christian faith and discipleship. This work is truly part of who we are in our mission, our values, our history, and our theology.

The Confession of Belhar is one of the theological standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in our Book of Confessions. Its three major sections each center around a particular theme: unity, reconciliation, and justice. When it comes to justice, it is unequivocal, rooted in the clear witness of Scripture from the Law and the Prophets through Christ and the early church: "[we believe] that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others."

But it is equally unequivocal about unity: "[we believe] that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;" and further, "this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God."

The authors of Belhar, who were South African Reformed Christians resisting apartheid, refused to choose between justice and unity for the life and witness of the church. Our mandate in this moment is the same: we cannot and will not choose between justice and unity. We will stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged. And we will do so recognizing that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, and convictions in our congregation about how to take that stand most faithfully and effectively is indeed an opportunity through Christ for mutual service and enrichment.

We are going to do this work together, with faith and courage. We are not all going to agree on everything all the time (we don’t even do that now!). But we are going to listen to one another deeply and patiently; we are going to respond to one another with both conviction and love; we are going to extend and receive grace as we do so. We are going to make some mistakes in the process, and we are going to both ask and offer forgiveness when we do. And in committing ourselves to all that and doing it, the work itself becomes an opportunity to witness to Christ’s reconciliation, unity, and justice.

I am both eternally grateful and sinfully proud to be your pastor. This is a congregation of truly extraordinary faithfulness, resilience, generosity, and love. We have both the capacity and calling from God to do this vital ministry together. And, in the words of Paul to the Philippian church: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil 1:6).

Grace and Peace,
The Rev. J.C. Austin
Senior Pastor